Royal College of Art graduate, Helen Jenkins, is facilitating an enthusiastic team of Norfolk stitchers leave a heritage of church textiles for future generations that can be viewed this summer and autumn during a series of monthly workshop tours.
by Sandie Shirley
Helen stepped into the new role of workshop supervisor for the Broderers’ Guild at Norwich Cathedral
16 years ago, laying the foundations of a successful venture. Since then she has pioneered the work at the Cathedral and its diocese while developing contracts further afield.
Helen relies on the diverse skills of a team of loyal volunteers that she has recruited and guided over the years. Together they create new contemporary designs for the Cathedral and parish churches and breathe new life into century’s old workmanship so it can be useful and admired again.
The Anglican Christian is passionate about what she does. She empathises with the rich and changing liturgical colours and Biblical symbolism, while interpreting religious paintings as she creates and recreates the past and future.
“Our work will be around for 50 to 150 years and a lot of thought is given to the broderers who come after us so we are careful to document the work we undertake. These things will outlive us so we are leaving a legacy as we look after church textiles,” says Helen who works part-time at the Cathedral and also teaches dressmaking and soft furnishings at adult education classes.
“The work is good and it gives me joy,” says Helen whose ability and experience has been hard won. Having completed a degree in constructed textiles at Birmingham Polytechnic she gained a coveted MA place at the Royal College of Art. A stint as a rug weaver in Wiltshire followed before she took up teaching and later combined motherhood with a variety of other textile courses. Three weeks after she moved to Norfolk from the other side of the country she saw the job advertised and knew it was for her says Helen who has not looked back.
With typical eagerness and creativity she turned the light open space on the first floor of Prior’s Hall, Lower Close, into a series of work rooms. Soon she had enlisted 12 volunteers and sourced the necessary suppliers from Norwich and further afield with special advisors drafted in to help with the initial set-up. The Broderers’ Guild at Norwich Cathedral was afloat just two months later in February 1998.
“We opened one day a week at first but soon increased to twice a week to keep abreast of the mounting work. Six months’ of advanced confirmed orders testify to what has been achieved. Half the work we undertake is at the Cathedral and the remainder is for individuals and churches as far away as Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire” says Helen.
The Guild works with velvets, silk damasks and dupions woven in shimmering patterns in purples, reds, greens and golds which are bought from major UK suppliers but are largely imported from India and Europe. Modern gold cords and stranded multi-coloured cotton threads are used for intricate hand sewing but machine sewing is also used for many of the vestments.
The painstaking work includes the preparation that Helen undertakes. Altar frontals are backed with calico, for example, which are washed and pre-shrunk and some materials are dyed to order.
Her diverse team are mostly retired women with a keen sense of duty that work one or two days a week. Some have City and Guilds qualifications, others have honed their sewing skills at home or come from industry – plying their specialist trade in London’s East End or working in alterations for a major couture house and John Lewis, before making up today’s 15-strong team.
Their nimble fingers continue a church tradition that began in medieval times. With silken strands and invisible stitching they help renew threadbare Victorian vestments and banners that may have been locked away in a chest for decades, explains Helen.
Jobs are allocated according to experience and may include altering the hems on choirboys’ robes and sample making as well as fine silk embroidery, explains Helen. “All the projects are closely supervised and training is given where needed and there are always opportunities to learn new skills.”
“Most of the work we undertake dates from 1870 onwards but some is earlier,” she explains. In contrast are the contemporary designs that she helps to devise and interpret. Her favourite is an altar frontal for St Peter’s Church, Westleton in Suffolk. The thatched church is noted for its annual wild flower festival and the workmanship marks the event.
The project, to scale, involved all of the volunteers who used their unique skills for various aspects. It took five years to complete, from the initial consultation, sourcing materials, design development and various samples. The finished piece represents the wild flowers at the festival and those seen in the churchyard, including poppies, harebells, primroses and the Dunwich rose that is unique to the area.
“We were invited to the dedication because it became so much a part of our lives. When a piece that has taken many months to complete leaves the workroom there is an emptiness but before you know it you are ensconced in something new,” says Helen.
Other notable pieces include the repair of the Bishop of Norwich’s Birkbeck cope with its feast of purple and gold embellishment as well as a modern fusion of red and gold flames representing Pentecost and commissioned by Christ Church in Eaton from a design by Renate Melinsky.
The work also involves damage prevention. “A stitch in time saves nine and recently we went on a moth hunt in the Cathedral and caught two,” says Helen.
Contact 01603 218326 or email@example.com for volunteer enquiries and workshop tours on Wednesdays at 2pm on 20 August, 17 September, 15 October and 19 November. Private parties of ten or more can be booked in addition.